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Protocol

May 10, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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"Protocol" – Short Film from Lorenz Troebinger on Vimeo.

Protocol follows a man caught in a vast, intricate bureaucratic system, an analogue AI, in which humans are nothing more than circuits and sliderules executing orders. However, what happens if someone makes a mistake in such a system?

Starring:
Patrick Derieg
Christopher Hütmannsberger
Alexander Reinberg
Manuel Lutz
Christian Tröbinger

Written & directed by Lorenz Troebinger

Credit: Lorenz Troebinger

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White Sale

May 8, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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On June 8, 2010, I turned 14. Two days later, my mom tripped over a pair of my tennis shoes and died. She was carrying laundry down to our washer in the basement when it happened. She broke her neck. Her name was Meredith and she was only 45. Her and my dad would have been married for 23 years that August.

After my mom died, it was just dad and me. I am an only child. When I was younger, my dad use to joke that I was such a miserable baby he and mom decided not to have any more kids, but mom always said I was the her greatest accomplishment. I was named Mary after my mom.

I was in the middle of taking final exams at school when mom died. The school gave me a pass on taking the rest of my finals that year. Dad took the next two weeks off from his third shift delivery job, and we spend the time planning mom’s funeral and trying to figure out what to do next. Everything had changed.

At the end of the two weeks, dad had to go back to work. I knew he felt guilty leaving me alone at night, but I also think he was relieved. The house was so quiet now. His first night back to work was also the first night I started sleeping with my t.v. on.

I had always been a good sleeper, even as a baby, but that first night alone in the house, I was wide awake. I kept thinking about my mom and the accident. Every time I closed my eyes I could picture her lying there, dead on our basement floor, sheets and towels scattered around her body. I kept thinking about those stupid tennis shoes. The ones that shouldn’t have been on the steps.

At first I tried watching cop shows to help me fall asleep, but shows like CSI and Law and Order hit too close to home. Next I tried putting on “The History Channel”, but I got so interested in the programs that I stayed up all night watching them. The news was too depressing, I hated sports, and cooking shows made me hungry. And then I stumbled across it. The perfect put-you-to-sleep show. HSN, or Home Shopping Network.

I knew what HSN was; I think my mom may have even bought from them once or twice. It was never anything I would have chosen to watch. But that night, alone in the house with just my thoughts, I decided to give it a go. To my surprise, I found the overly excited sales ladies comforting. They were the exact opposite of my mom, with piled on make-up, perfectly coifed hair and way too much personality. The drone of their sale pitch became white noise, and before I knew it, I could sleep.

As the weeks went on, I developed a bedtime ritual. Dad would leave for his job by 10:00, I would take a long, relaxing bath, read in bed for an hour or two, and when the lights went out, the t.v. came on.

I kept the station on HSN, and I watched it with the volume turned low; just loud enough to hear the strangely soothing voice of the 10:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m host.

“Welcome everyone to this amazing hour of shopping here on the Home Shopping Network. I’m your host for the next few hours, Cynthia -Cindy- Myers and I’m so glad you could join us. We have some great deals coming up and our first one will be a flex-pay…”

I was usually sound asleep before the first item was sold out.

“Hurry hurry hurry all you shoppers. If you want to get in on this deal, you MUST act now. This one won’t last.”

By the beginning of July, I was starting to feel a little like my old self. I still missed my mom, and I was still lonely at night, but Cynthia -Cindy- Myers had become like a surrogate to me. I looked forward to her visits each night and drifting off to sleep to the sound of her voice. I thought I was adjusting. I was wrong.

It was during the big “White Sale” that Cynthia Myers stopped talking to her audience of shoppers, and started talking directly to me.

It had been a rough day for me, and by the time I got upstairs to bed, I was too tired to even read a chapter of my latest teen novel. I must have been asleep for only a few minutes when I was awaken by the sound of someone calling my name.

“Hey Mary. Wake up. You’re not going to want to miss this one.”

I opened my eyes, confused. Did the t.v. wake me up?

“This is the one you have been waiting for Mary. Home Shopping Network’s famous White Sale. 300 thread count Egyptian cotton sheets in white, cream, beige, and for the first time, desert sand.”

I couldn’t believe what I was hearing. I sat up in bed and stared at the t.v. in amazement. There on the screen, looking right at me, talking directly to me, was HSN’s Queen of the Late night. Only this time, Cynthia Myers looked…off. Her normally perfect hair was sticking straight out from her head in electric shock fashion. Her eye makeup was smudged under both eyes, and one false eyelash was dangling from her lid like a sleeping spider. When she smiled, her perfect teeth now appeared discolored and grey.

As I watched, blood began to drip from Cindy’s nose and splash onto the once pristine sheet in her hand. This pissed her off.

“Oh great” she said, holding the sheet up to the camera. “Look what you made me do Mary. Look what you made me do.”

She was getting herself worked up. Her eyes looked wild.

“You couldn’t just call in could you Mary. You couldn’t just call in and help me make a sale could you. You owe me Mary. This is all your fault. You and those Goddam sneakers.”

Cindy then took the once white sheet and began to twist it around her neck. Once, twice, smearing the drop of blood in the process.

“What are you going to do now Mary? What now?” She screamed from the t.v. “Pick up your phone. There’s still time to get in on this deal.”

With that, Cynthia Myers pulled the ends of the sheet tight across her throat, and with a resounding “snap” proceeded to break her own neck.

I might have screamed then. I really don’t know. But the next thing I remember I was standing in the hallway outside my bedroom door. My heart was slamming and I couldn’t catch my breath. My muscles felt tight and I was ready to run. Instead I stood stock still and listened. And waited. And when nothing happened I dared to look back into my bedroom, and at the t.v.

The twisted image of Cynthia Myers breaking her own neck was replaced with the pleasing face of Samantha Greene, host of the 4 a.m. to 10:00 a.m. sunrise show. The “White Sale” was over, and we had moved on to herbal remedies and supplements. Needless to say, I didn’t go back to sleep that night.

I decided not to mention my crazy dream to my dad the next day. He was dealing with his own issues, and his guilt at having to leave me alone at night. I had also convinced myself that this dream, this nightmare, really wasn’t as messed up as I had first imagined. You can make yourself believe anything if you really want to.

The next day I replayed that dream over and over in my head, and when it was night again, I couldn’t bring myself to try and sleep. Even though I was exhausted, I decided to stay up and watch t.v. on the living room couch. I put on a rerun of some campy show from the 80’s, and I was asleep before the first commercial break.

This time, it wasn’t the voice of Cynthia Myers calling my name that woke me up, but the distinct “click, click, click” of channels being changed on my t.v. screen. In my groggy state, I only caught a glimpse of different shows as they flicked across the screen. Then, the clicking stopped. Cynthia Myers was looking up at me from behind a table heavy with costume jewelry and semi-precious gems. She smiled at me, and this time I noticed she was missing her two front teeth. When she spoke, her voice came out in a whistle.

“Hi Sweetie. Welcome back to this hour of exciting sales.” She lisped, air escaping from between her teeth. “Stick around kiddo, you just may learn something.”

Then she gave me an exaggerated wink and a thumbs up sign that she quickly twisted around into a one finger salute.

I pushed my hands against my eyes. Hard. I tried to blink her away. She was still there. Only now, her broken smile was once again perfect and whole, and impossibly white. She spoke to the camera and to her “viewers at home”.

“You don’t want to miss this next half hour” Cynthia smiled. “We have something really big coming up so stay tuned.”

I abruptly turned off the t.v.

I picked up my cell phone and hit speed dial for my dad. If I was going crazy, he would probably want to know. Plus, I was scared shit-less. I wasn’t worried about protecting my dad anymore, I wanted someone to protect me. My dad answered on the second ring and he sounded worried. He always sounded worried when my mom or I called him in the middle of the night. He said he always thought something bad must have happened. My mind had been racing a mile a minute about what I wanted to tell him, but once I heard his voice, all I could manage to say was “hi dad”.

I don’t know why I didn’t tell him about my freaky dreams or visions or whatever they were. But I felt 10 times better just talking to him. I told him I couldn’t sleep and that I was thinking about mom. He told me that he thought about her all the time too. He said there wasn’t much else to do when you were on the road except think. He sounded so sad. We talked the rest of the night, and into morning. And when his trip was over, I talked him home.

We sat at the breakfast table together and I made us scrambled eggs and toast. It was one of the only things I knew how to make. We ate our breakfast, cleaned up the kitchen, and then we both went to his room and fell asleep.

When I woke up 12 hours later I felt like a weight had been lifted from me. I felt like I could see things more clearly. It was then that I decided to face my fears head on.

That night, at 10:00, every light in the living-room blazing, I called Cynthia -Cindy- Myers.

The phone number for HSN was blazing across the front of my screen in bright white digits. I picked up my cell phone and dialed the toll-free number and waited for an answer.

“Hello, and thank you for calling the Home Shopping Network. We’re so glad you decided to shop with us today. How can we help you?”

This recorded message was followed by a number of options.

“Please press 1 if you would like to make a purchases.”
“Please press 2 if you would like to make a payment.”
“Please press 3 if you have a question regarding shipping or delivery.”
“Please press 4 if you would like the opportunity to speak on air with one of our Home Shopping Network Hosts.”
“Press 5…..”

I didn’t need to listen any further. I pressed option 4 and waited.

In just a few minutes, a voiced answered the phone.

“Thank you for calling Home Shopping Network. This is Lisa.”

After answering some pre-screening questions about why I wanted to talk to Cindy Myers on-air (I lied) they put my call in the queue and told me I would be “live” in about 15 minutes.

My hands were so sweaty that I thought I might drop my phone. My heart was pounding and I was afraid I wouldn’t be able to speak when it was my turn. After waiting about 20 minutes I started to question what the hell I was doing. This was nuts. Just as I was about to hang up the phone I head a click and then:

“Hi, this is Cynthia Myers thank you so much for calling into the show tonight. What is your name?”

I drew a blank. I couldn’t remember my own name.

“Hello….your on the air with Cynthia Myers. Can you hear me?”

“Mary” I squeaked out. “My name is Mary”.

“Hi there Mary, so nice to talk to you tonight. Where are you calling from?” Cynthia asked. Her voice was so soothing, she put me at ease.

“I’m calling from Binghamton, New York” I said. “Thank you so much for taking my call.”

Cynthia went on to ask me about my experience with the current product she was selling, and asked me to tell the viewers why I loved it so much.

“Actually Ms. Myers” I began. “I don’t really use this product. I’m calling you because my mom died last month and I have been watching your show at night” I said. “I wanted to thank you for keeping me company and making me feel less alone”. I could feel my voice catching in my throat and I was afraid I would start crying. I watched Cynthia’s reaction to what I had just said on my screen. Her face softened and she smiled gently.

“Well bless your heart” Cynthia said, placing a hand over her chest. “That is one of the sweetest things I have ever hear in my 6 years on the air. I’m so glad that I could help dear”.

I took a deep breath and continued. “Ms. Myers, the last few nights something weird happened when I watched your show”.

Cynthia’s face filled the screen, a quizzical look playing across her features.

I gathered my courage and continued: “I was wondering if you experienced anything weird too.”

I didn’t expect what happened next.

Cynthia’s once pleasant features twisted up in an ugly snarl and she glared at me through the t.v. screen. “Mary, I really don’t think this is the time or place to be discussing this do you?” She said. Her voice stern and no-nonsense.

My breath caught in my throat. I didn’t know what to say. I could feel my hands sweating. “What?” I stammered.

“That’s it, I’m done with this shit.” Cynthia raged at the camera. She plucked something off the collar of her floral dress and threw it to the ground. I heard a crackle sound and realized it was her wireless microphone.

Cynthia moved around to the front of the display table, her face inches from the camera. She brought her finger up to her now red face and I could swear I saw smoke coming from her mouth. “I’m coming over there Mary. We are going to settle this once and for all. Face to face”.

Then she was out of frame, and the camera showed the empty sound stage for just a moment before a black screen went up with the words “We are experiencing technical difficulties….please stand by.”

It was at that moment my doorbell starting to ring.

I jumped up off the sofa, phone still clutched in my hand. I looked wildy around the room, as if it could give me some clue as to what I should do next. The ringing at the door grew incessant and then it was replaced with hard knocking, and then pounding. The door shook. It felt like the whole house was shaking. I felt something warm and wet trailing down the leg of my pajamas, and realized for the first time in 11 years, I had peed my pants. I started crying.

“Please, go away.” I whispered. “Please.”

And just like that, the pounding stopped.

I must have stood in the middle of my livingroom for 15 minutes. Legs shaking, my heart thudding in my chest. I looked down at my cell phone, clutched tightly in my hand, and realized the call had been disconnected. The smiling face of my mom stared back at me from my screen saver. I sat down on the floor and began to cry even harder.

Finally, in what could have been a few minutes, or a few hours, I dragged myself to my feet and walked over to the front door. I felt like I was having an out of body experience. Like I was watching myself lift my hand to the doorknob and unbolt the lock. I gripped the handle and it felt cold and slick in my hand. I turned the knob and opened the door. I stepped outside into the cool, pre-dawn air and took a deep breath. There on the stoop sat a package with “Home Shopping Network” printed on the side. The computer generated label was address to me.

I looked around, the street was deserted.

I picked up the package and carried it inside the house. I closed the door behind me but I didn’t bother locking it again. I took the box into the kitchen and got out a pair of scissors. Taking a deep breath, I cut the tape securing the lid of the box. I suddenly felt calm. I lifted the lid.

That was a little over 2 years ago. Not long after what I now refer to as “that night” my dad took a new job in a different part of the state and we moved from our house into a gated apartment complex complete with a swimming pool, tennis courts, and a cute 11th grade neighbor.

Overall, my life has been pretty good. I still miss my mom, but I can think about her now and smile. I have made lots of friends, and I joined the tennis team at my new school. I keep myself busy and I don’t dwell on the past.

I love my new room, and dad let me decorate it any way I wanted. The walls are pink with white trim, and I have movie posters and pictures of musical groups hanging everywhere. But my favorite decoration is the gift I got that night, packaged up in a Home Shopping Network box.

Inside the box was a new pair of white tennis shoes together with a Home Shopping Network “Receipt for Payment”.

Under the section for purchases, written in my mom’s delicate script, it read:

“The tennis shoes were never on the stairs Mary. They were on the basement floor, right where you left them, the whole time.”

The receipt is in a frame on my desk, and those new tennis shoes, just my size, are sitting on a shelf over my bed. Two years later, and I can still detect the faintest hint of her perfume on them.

I never figured out what really happened “that night” and I really don’t care. Maybe the whole ordeal was just a series of dreams from the mind of a guilt ridden teenaged girl. But maybe not.

A week after “that night”, I watched the Home Shopping Network for what would be the last time. They had a new host for the 10:00 p.m. to 4:00 a.m. slot. I don’t remember her name, but I do remember her saying the old host had moved on to “bigger and better endeavors”. I turned off the t.v., and went to bed.

Credit: Tracy Allen

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Darkness in the Rear View Mirror

May 5, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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I have always been uneasy driving alone at night. It was worst the first few times, when I had just gotten my license, but the nagging fear has never gone away to this day. It’s disorienting to look into the mirrors and see nothing, and I mean nothing but the consuming blackness of the night. It makes me hesitant to check the mirrors should I see this dark void, or worse, someone sitting in my back seat staring at me.

In the summer of 2013, I found myself driving home alone on highway 902 from a party. It was almost midnight, and needless to say it was pitch black. As was usual at night, I was on edge. I had the radio off, and could hear nothing but the muffled roar of tires on pavement and the dull hum of the engine. I stole a glance into the middle rear view mirror, and saw nothing but darkness through the back window.

I know that I looked backward and saw nothing. I’m sure of it. Just the seemingly endless blackness of the night. I remember it so clearly because not ten seconds later a car passed me to the left. Headlights on. I had one of those sudden adrenaline rushes like when you think you see a person outside your bedroom window when it’s just a tree, or when you start awake at night with the feeling of falling. Ten seconds earlier, nothing had been behind me. Suddenly, a car. I drove all the way home shivering and knowing something was off.

The next morning, I found two sets of scratches near the back of my van. One was on the left rear, one was on the right. The car was pretty old. They could have been there for months, but that was the first time that I distinctly remembered seeing them.

In hindsight, there are two possibilities for what happened that night. Possibility one. By some glitch in reality, or something paranormal, this other car had somehow appeared behind me within ten seconds of me checking my mirror. Like some weird ghost crap or something. However, the second option is what makes my blood run cold whenever I consider it.

It didn’t even occur to me until months after the fact, but it makes me dread driving alone at night even more. Possibility two. The car was normal. It had approached me from the rear and passed me to my left. However, something large, and wide, and as black as the night had been clinging to the rear of my car, obscuring my view through the window and leaving deep scratches on the sides.

And I had inadvertently driven it home with me.

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The Lost Cosmonaut

May 3, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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Officially, Yuri Gagarin was the first human to reach outer space. His historic flight in April of 1961 kick-started the space race in earnest. The Soviet space program, however, was shrouded in secrecy from the beginning. There have long been questions regarding the existence of “lost cosmonauts,” those individuals who’d ventured beyond our atmosphere at the cost of their lives, their failure and very existence expunged by the Soviet government in an effort to save face.

From a listening station just outside of Turin, Italy, two amateur radio operators had been scanning the skies since the 1950s. In October of 1960, a full six months before Gagarin flew, they picked up a strange transmission from space. Breaking through a sea of static came the ghostly voice of a woman, which they were able to record. She spoke Russian, and while they couldn’t understand it, the distress in her voice was clear. She seemed to be choking back tears as she spit out the words. After a moment the static came creeping back, swallowing her voice like a wave. It wasn’t long before the operators had a translation:

“No one will ever know,” she was repeating. “No one will ever know…no one will ever know…”

The words would prove prophetic, for indeed no one would know who this mysterious woman was, or why she said what she’d said.

Until now.

Growing up, the greatest speeds Roza Ivanova had ever known were on the back of her favorite horse Agripin, racing across the rolling hills of the Irkutsk countryside. She’d never felt so free as on the back of this powerful beast, and almost believed his hooves might well leave the ground upon cresting each rise, never to land again.

Then came the war to shatter juvenile fantasy. Like so many Russian families, hers came to know loss and hardship firsthand. Roza didn’t like to talk about that. She had been lucky though, securing an education in Moscow in the years that followed. It was here at university where she found her second passion after horseback riding, that of skydiving. Agripin never did leave the ground, but Roza, having achieved the feat on her own, now gleefully dove back toward it.

Motherhood and a stint in local politics kept her busy after graduation. Yet if her thirst for adventure was quelled, it was not quenched. It simmered below the surface, anticipating any chance to boil over. It was with great delight, then, that she received news of her selection for training in the nascent Soviet space program: Me? They want to see me? What I can show them!

Sergei Korolyov was adamant: It must be a woman. Pulled from the Gulags two decades prior, the brilliant head of Soviet rocket development insisted to his superiors that it would be a public relations coup. Besides, he argued, women in general are smaller and lighter than men. And as he was so fond of saying with regard to launches, every gram counts. Only in the last few months had the potential for a payload greater than dogs been realized. Their deaths were not a deterrent. The Politburo, for their part, did not need much convincing. They glowed at the choice. “Hah!” responded a low-ranking official. “First person and first woman in one — let the Americans best that! They haven’t the balls twice over!” That earned a smattering of laughter from the council.

The selection process began, and by the time Korolyov’s team found Roza, there were nine other candidates. One by one, they were brought in and presented to him in the same brusque manner.

“Name?” The baby-faced director sat scribbling at his desk.

“Roza Ivanova!”

He gave her the briefest of glances as he continued to write. “And where do you come from, Roza Ivanova?”

“Irkutsk Oblast, Siberia!”

“Mm-hmm. Age and weight?”

“Thirty-two years, fifty-six point seven kilograms!”

Scribble scribble. “Thank you, Roza Ivanova from Irkutsk. You may go.”

It was new, tense, exciting. She couldn’t wait to start.

All of them passed the rigorous training process, which included isolation and centrifuge tests, numerous parachute jumps, and engineering studies. But it was Roza they picked in the end. Her skydiving background should serve her well in the mission’s critical reentry stage, as should her political acumen in presenting a face to the media. It was an easy face to look at too, with high cheek bones, asiatic eyes, and a confident smile framed by thick blond curls. She was also the lightest of the group — every gram counts — and her father being a war hero didn’t hurt either.

She counted the days until her launch, half-believing there was no way it would actually come, that this was all a grand dream — until the day it actually came.

The October morning in the Kazakh Steppe was cool, dry, and gray. Early sunlight began its steady march across the warming tarmac. Roza had seen the Vostok rocket plenty before. Still, being ferried to it now, knowing what was in store, it impressed anew as the sun rose. The thing was a marvel, a shimmering silver-white skyscraper towering over the flat landscape. Four massive boosters draped off its sides, meeting the core stage with an elegant taper. The surmounting nose cone pointed triumphantly skyward.

Already suited, Roza met with Korolyov at the launch pad. He took her gloved hands in his. “This day will be a remarkable one,” he said, planting kisses of well-being on her cheeks. “You will succeed.” She smiled, grateful for his words. She only wished her son could be here. Of course, the mission must be kept secret, for now, even from her loved ones. Especially from her loved ones. She made her way toward the service structure cradling the rocket. Back turned, Korolyov fetched a pill from his pocket and tossed it down his throat. He was a jungle of frayed nerves inside.

A flurry of thoughts filled Roza’s head as the elevator inched its way up the scaffolding. She felt as if the whole of her life had condensed to this single moment. That she had a responsibility not to one person, not to any group, but to all of mankind. And realized, behind the pride and joy, there lurked the somber knowledge that for a short time, she would be more alone than anyone who ever lived. She made these thoughts known to the flanking personnel, save the last, and they recorded them. With a soft whine, the lift came to a halt before the vacant craft.

Assisted by technicians, she secured her helmet and squirmed inside the cockpit. Cramped, but not much to it, she mused. Seat could use some cushioning. The instrument panel was simple in the extreme: a few gauges, various indicator lights, a moving half-globe to show position. Controls were all but nonexistent. In fact, all major controls were locked. The craft would operate with automatic systems or via remote ground control — manual override was not an option. Nobody was sure how a human might react in the weightless environment of outer space, so no chances would be taken. After a final check, the hatch was closed and sealed. Roza communicated with ground control, operating under the call sign “Dawn,” while awaiting the go-ahead for launch. She’d chosen as her own call sign “Agripin.”

AGRIPIN: How do you read me?
DAWN: I hear you well. Cabin pressurization complete. VHF reception is good. Ping 1, 2, 3, 4, 5.
AGRIPIN: I understand fine. Ready to go. How do I look?
DAWN: Roger. TV image is good. Heart beat is normal. Lights check.
AGRIPIN: Roger. Lights are good. Like a New Year tree. [laughs]
DAWN: A bit unseasonable for that, I'm afraid.

This pre-flight chatter continued for a while, until finally:

AGRIPIN: I hear the valves working. Slight rumbling.
DAWN: Yes, get ready please.
AGRIPIN: Ready. I feel good. Rumble increasing.
DAWN: We are giving ignition...preliminary stage...intermediate...main...lift off!

Whoomp. The scaffolding parted. Steam billowed, fires burst, and the tower slowly rose in defiance of gravity.

AGRIPIN: Soar, Agripin, soar!

Roza was pushed to her seat with oppressive force as the vehicle shook and rattled. She prayed it would hold together. Agonizing minutes later, having propelled her to north of 18,000 miles per hour, the boosters dropped away in unison. Acceleration let up at once, throwing her forward. The payload fairing split in two petals and fell away, revealing a second porthole at her feet. She radioed that she could see Earth, that it was breathtaking. Then whoomp as the second stage ignited. Multiple Gs pinned her back as the rocket arced in an easterly curve away from Baikonur Cosmodrome. The sky had gone from white to a variety of lighter and darker blues, approaching black: a smooth gradient of Earth to space.

The second stage engine shut down, then whoomp as the third fired up. More Gs pounded every part of her body, threatening to flatten her, as if she were being pinned down by an elephant. She rode the wave of acceleration until the final stage was spent, detaching with a bang. Free. Ten minutes after liftoff, all sensation of speed stopped for good. Roza was now free-floating in space. She sat off her chair as far as the restraints would allow, enjoying the sensation.

The Vostok spacecraft was little more than a hollow ball on a cylindrical chassis, terminating to a retro engine and bristling with antennas. Its objective was to make one revolution around Earth before reentry, after which Roza would eject from the module and parachute to the ground. Total flight time should be just over one and a half hours.

Roza fed ground control continual status updates as she got on her way. This would constitute the bulk of her mission, as there was little else to do but enjoy the sights. Through the lower porthole, Earth was a beautiful mosaic of mountain, sea, and cloud. She reached for an overhead compartment, producing a monocular (a request granted with some hesitation — every gram counts, after all), lifted her visor, and trained the instrument on random landmasses. The terrain crawled by like a conveyor.

Forty-two minutes after liftoff, Roza reported that she was on the night side of Earth and would soon be passing over the United States. The California coast with its nebulous tendrils of city lights rolled into view, and she wondered how slumbering Americans would react to news of this Soviet woman above their skies.

If Sputnik was a headache, this ought to be a full-blown nervous breakdown!

She radioed ground control for a general update. No response came.

Korolyov was himself on the verge of a breakdown. He paced back and forth through a blue haze of cigarette smoke, puffing and steaming. “My capsule!” he shouted to anyone making the mistake of eye contact. “How is my capsule?”

“She has passed beyond the radio horizon,” said a flight controller, “but should –”

“But should have come back by now!” snapped Korolyov.

“Sir, there are any number of reasons why –”

“I’m getting something!” The controller was interrupted again, this time by a radio operator. “I think it’s her!” He turned up a dial.

Korolyov frowned, cocking an ear. Reception was poor at first, the words coming through in disjointed chunks.

AGRIPIN: ...read me? There is...repeat, I can see something...orbit...to be artificial. Do you read me? Dawn, can...I see an object...
DAWN: We read you, we read you. It is poor, say again!
AGRIPIN: I understand you. Dawn, there is a foreign object in orbit ahead.

Every body in the room froze.

The world of dream transitioned to that of waking. Daylight was breaking above the South Atlantic when Roza, still trying to make contact with Dawn, caught sight of a twinkle. A thing that should not be there. Now, communications restored and curiosity piqued, she provided details as they came.

AGRIPIN: Object is in a higher orbit...I believe I will overtake it. Reflective surface, spherical...approaching closer...too big for a satellite, I think. Just a minute...

Roza retrieved the monocular and aimed it through the forward porthole. She gasped. The shock could not have been greater were it a flying saucer with little green men inside.

AGRIPIN: A spacecraft! I make out lettering...”CCCP” -- it's one of ours!
DAWN: Chyort!

The expletive was under the breath, unintended, but audible.

AGRIPIN: I see extensive damage. A hole has been ripped through the reentry module...two sides...catastrophic. It...

Roza struggled to maintain composure. The craft was almost identical to hers. She conjectured that a small meteoroid might have punched its way through the hull, a one-in-a-million stroke of incredibly bad luck. Aside from the damage, there was something else about this craft that bothered her. It was…too small? What did that mean?

Then came a new shock:

AGRIPIN: There is...oh! Can it be? There is an occupant inside! I see the torso, the helmet. How is this possible? I am approaching closer...

Her little spaceship sailed toward the anomaly.

AGRIPIN: I see the helmet in the sun. He is smi...

Roza let herself trail off. She could not finish the sentence, because it made no sense. Smiling? He was smiling? She pressed the monocular’s eyecup to her skin and soon saw why.

The meteoroid — or whatever it was — had torn not only through the craft, but through its unfortunate occupant as well. His body ended in ragged strips just below the waist. She forced herself to watch as it floated listlessly about the cabin. When the front of the helmet came into view once more, Roza took a good look at the face. The eyes were tiny, shriveled orbs. What she’d mistaken for smiling was in fact decayed flesh around the mouth, exposing teeth and gums in a horrible rictus. This surprised her. She would not have expected decomposition in space.

And he was so young. So young… Her brain did not want to process the final revelation that would set every piece in context. Yet she could not escape it as the gap between the two vehicles closed:

This was no man. This was a boy of about ten years.

Dogs were not enough. They needed a person in space, and before the Americans. Booster capacity, though, had not been adequate for a fully grown adult. Close, they were close, but not quite there. And they could not wait, would not wait. Their solution was a heartbreaking compromise. He must have launched not four months ago, when the last pair of “muttniks” went up. Every gram counts.

Roza thought of her son as anger welled within.

AGRIPIN: A boy? You sent a boy? How could you do such a thing?
DAWN: Agripin -- Roza -- please. We could not foresee such an accident. It was imperative he go.

Korolyov’s voice reached across space, ringing hollow by the time it filtered through Roza’s earpiece.

AGRIPIN: But why? It wasn't right. He should be acknowledged, people should know he was first. We must tell the world he was first!

A heavy sigh, then a moment of silence before Korolyov spoke again:

DAWN: Can you not reconsider?
AGRIPIN: I insist! The right thing must be done.

Rosa’s resolve was clear. More silence.

DAWN: I am sorry, Comrade. He cannot be first in space. And neither can you.

An orange lamp alerted her to the working of the attitude control thrusters. The view tilted as they fired in quick spurts, pitching the rear of the craft earthward.

AGRIPIN: Wait! What are you doing? Stop!
DAWN: I--we cannot return you. In any form. The wreckage may fall into the wrong hands.

Paralyzed, she stared into a silent empire of solitude. The black expanse stared back with a million starry eyes.

AGRIPIN: You mean to...
DAWN: You have served the Motherland well. I am sorry.

And Korolyov was sorry. She was a good Soviet. A good woman. But he could not risk a return to the Gulags.

The smaller Vostok came into view above and to her right. One arm of the remains of its passenger, palm out and bent at the elbow, seemed to give her a lazy zero-G wave as it bobbed through the window.

AGRIPIN: Nyet! Nyet! What you are about to do --

Whoomp. The retro rocket fired with a roar. In tandem with the nitrogen thrusters, it pushed her into a new orbit curving away from the Earth, into an escape velocity from which there was no return. The corpse floated and grinned behind her.

AGRIPIN: Nyet! You cannot!

Roza was powerless to stop the remote commands. The stars beckoned, growing the tiniest bit closer.

The capsule, her bravest, swiftest horse, was now her coffin, and it was her fate that she would be interred in the cold folds of deep space. The conditioned air of the cabin was ice on her skin. It smelled sickly sweet, like rotting fruit. Roza began to shiver. “But no one will ever know about us!” she cried out to the uncaring cosmos. “No one will ever know…no one will ever know…”

Agripin galloped through her mind, unbounded at last.

“Shut it off,” said Korolyov, pointing to the radio. Click. The men in ground control sat at their consoles with grim faces. Korolyov opened a new pack of cigarettes, tapped one out and hung it at his lips. “Tragic, yes. A setback, yes.” He struck a match. “Do not fret, Comrades. We will try again. And we will succeed.”

He trudged out the room in a wake of blue smoke, searching his pockets for another pill. No such luck.

Credit: alapanamo

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Graveyard Pictures

May 2, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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Graveyard Pictures

This is a video pasta. If the embedded video is not loading for you, please click the link above to go directly to the video’s YouTube page and try watching it there.

Credit: Cold Chills

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Fragment

April 24, 2016 at 12:00 AM
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FRAGMENT from Noah Griffith & Daniel Stewart on Vimeo.

Directed by Noah Griffith
Produced by Daniel Stewart
Written by Noah Griffith & Daniel Stewart
Starring William Hoverder

An Air Force jet breaks up over the desert. A mysterious radio beacon draws the pilot from the crash site. A discovery is waiting. And it is not of this Earth.

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